digital brain

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A neuroscientist's journey from cancer patient to company founder

In the spring of 2004, Antonio Ulloa was visiting San Francisco, California, for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting when he was beset with nausea and a feeling of intoxication. A postdoc at the National Institutes of Health's (NIH’s) National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the time, he was at the conference to present his neuroimaging studies about short-term memory and to network and scout possible employers. He remembers presenting and participating at the conference but not much else from the trip other than lying in bed. Upon returning home to Washington, D.C., he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Until that moment, Ulloa had been trying to decide whether he should pursue his ultimate plan to found a startup to develop software that models brain function or to accept an offer for a second postdoc. That concern faded into the periphery as he fought for his life. Following his physician's advice, he quickly decided to have the tumor surgically removed: He was diagnosed on a Friday, and the surgery took place the following Monday.

Antonio Ulloa

Antonio Ulloa

Credit: Jennifer Stephens Photography

After taking a week off to recover from the surgery, Ulloa decided to turn down the second postdoc offer to focus on his health, and he and his wife moved to Raleigh so that she could take a clerkship at a U.S. federal appeals court. Ulloa volunteered his time to help former colleagues write grant proposals and tried to arrange some research collaborations but was unsuccessful, probably, he thinks, because he had been away from the bench for too long and was not affiliated with a lab, institution, or company. Although he was discouraged about his career prospects, he never felt defeated. His plans for his startup venture were still in the back of his mind, but he didn’t feel ready to pursue it yet.

Then, in the spring of 2007, while Ulloa was still trying to get his career back on track, his cancer relapsed. This time, the disease was at a more advanced stage and had spread to his abdomen. Initially Ulloa was despondent. After his first diagnosis, he had been told the chances of relapse were small and had therefore opted to forego radiotherapy, fearing the secondary effects of the treatment; he eventually regretted that decision. But after some time, he was able to alter his mindset and take a more proactive, scientific approach. “I basically became an expert in testicular cancer and read a great amount of research papers about it,” he says. After completing a deep review of the literature, he decided to pursue an extremely aggressive chemotherapy treatment, against the advice of his oncologist. It paid off: He was declared cancer-free in September 2007.

While he was struggling with cancer, he had his doubts about whether he would ever have a full professional career, let alone his life. Now, though, his work is finally what he always wanted it to be. In late 2012 he finally founded Neural Bytes, which models human brain processing using data from neurophysiological and neuroimaging studies. Now on its third contract with the NIH and developing software apps, Neural Bytes is in the black, and Ulloa is looking for larger and more lucrative projects.

Founding pains

Ulloa first seriously considered starting his own venture as he was finishing up his computational neuroscience Ph.D. at Boston University, but he was intimidated by the technical aspects of opening an enterprise, such as creating a business plan. Later, his cancer took a toll on his professional confidence. After his diagnosis, “I spent a lot of time exploring different options because what I thought I wanted to do”—start his own company—“did not seem possible,” he says.

But eventually, research and education helped him conquer his fear. He learned what he could about starting a company, including registering and developing a business plan, from government and business websites and his accountant. (In the process, he also realized that forming a limited liability company after his first diagnosis would have helped provide the professional legitimacy he lacked at the time.) Then, in early 2012, Ulloa founded Alpha Brain, a company that designed and built electronic brain games for children and tools to teach English to non-native speakers. The company never made a profit, but it was intellectually stimulating while also allowing him to continue as a stay-at-home dad—a role he had taken on when he and his wife had their first daughter, just 2 months after his second remission. It also provided a testing ground for the venture he really wanted to pursue—creating neural modeling software—which he made a reality with Neural Bytes later that year.

After creating some of the Neural Bytes apps, including a neural network simulator, Ulloa contacted principal investigators at NIH to discuss working together. He learned that there was interest in updating the computational neural models that NIH was working with at the time, and about 8 months later, Neural Bytes won its first NIH contract. Ulloa was relieved that the time and resources he had invested in Neural Bytes were beginning to pay off, and winning the contract gave him some optimism about his professional future, which has continued.

Although Ulloa’s path has been convoluted by his illness and its consequences, he is happy with where he is now. The stress involved in managing his own company is worth the joy of being able to set his priorities, he says. Heading his own business gives him the flexibility to help raise his two young daughters, and although he wishes he did not spend about half his time doing administrative work, he takes pride in what he has built. He only wishes he would have done so sooner.

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